Cambridge, Mass. — Traditional parlor games draw a quiet crowd every Wednesday night to the spot where the village blacksmith of Longfellow's poem toiled.
In the atmosphere of the historic Dexter Pratt House, Scrabble, backgammon, chess, and bridge are played by avid regulars, sedate novices, and ''those who need somewhere to go to socialize,'' says Betty Smith of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, which runs the game night.
The gathering house may be one manifestation of a larger trend. According to one game manufacturers' trade journal, the recession has America unfolding its board games in an effort to beat the high cost of entertainment. People are looking for less expensive ways to amuse themselves at home, say retailers. While the vogue of video games has drawn attention to games generally, not everybody is beeping and buzzing in battle against invaders from outer space. Retailers report that sales of Scrabble, backgammon, chess, and Monopoly are unruffled.
Back in Cambridge, players sit under ceiling fans and track lighting at seven round tables on a bare wood floor. On a recent night, dress ran to boots, jeans, and pullovers. Coats are thrown on armchairs. Only laughter punctuates the sound of concentration. The atmosphere is remarkably homey considering that a ficus tree is the only decorative accent and that one end of the room has a grand piano on a step-up stage.
''It's a very pleasant place to be,'' says Steve Meadow, a computer programmer and weekly bridge contender. He enjoys the game and has found a good supply of partners, the Wednesday night gatherings.
The goodies for sale on a tray are not the average parlor refreshments. Viennese pastry is the specialty of the bakery in the Blacksmith House, also run by the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.
The center began the game night three years ago. It was popular from the start. Betty Smith collects the 50-cent admission and says the evenings ''bring in some people who are not necessarily interested in taking classes.'' Turnout is not dependent on the weather, according to Smith, who teaches special-needs children in the Cambridge public schools.
''Have any chess players shown up?'' asks Richard Zeisse, a counselor who has come here once before and found good opponents. There is a match in progress but he is advised to wait. ''Some people come early and only stay an hour. Some come later,'' says gatekeeper Smith of the evening, which runs from 7:30 to 10:30.
Hopeful game players briskly cross the courtyard, where bent nails and mangled horseshoes, discards from its most famous occupant, turned up during renovations. Ms. Smith says the evening doesn't attract as many college students as it does residents from nearby towns.
Among the 21 people playing away are Paula Racine and Lillian Bunker from Somerville. They are opposing each other in Scrabble although they hoped on this first visit to get a foursome for bridge. ''I want to teach her how to play,'' says Paula, who has not played the game herself for a few years.
Jeff Way, a Harvard graduate student in molecular biology, is more aggressive in recruiting opponents.
''You here for bridge?'' he says as he enters the room to a young woman playing solitaire.
''Yeah, I'm not any good,'' she says.
''Good,'' he says as two others complete their table.